Monday, October 10, 2016

Thoughts on the Two Halves of "Metropolitan"

That’s right, the two halves—not that Whit Stillman designed the movie to be seen that way, or that there’s some sort of organic division running through the film.  My husband and I hardly ever watch a movie all the way through—our hourglasses run out right around 70 minutes, making even a standard two hour movie too long for one sitting.  We have been known to swallow eighty-five minute films in one gulp; but that’s about our upper limit.  Maybe it’s a sign of ADD, or possibly the need of nerds to stop and discuss what’s happening (although that need seems to arise every five minutes).

Dare I mention that we related to Charlie?  Laughed at, yes, but also … {Source}

I once told a group of my freshmen about this disability of ours, and they were speechless.  I don’t think anything I said that semester shocked them more, not even my affirmation of the male pronoun.  (Well, possible their first paper grades—such is life.)

But returning to Metropolitan: one of the highlights of the first half was the Lionel Trilling moment, when Tom tells Audrey all about Lionel Trilling’s criticisms of Mansfield Park.  As it dawns on her that Tom hasn’t actually read Mansfield Park, she expresses astonishment, disbelief—and Tom is nonplussed.  He’d rather read good criticism than fiction, he says; with fiction, he can never forget that it isn’t really happening.  And let that be a lesson to all academics right there: this is not how you win the girl’s affections.  (Not that Tom is trying, not consciously, anyway.)

What makes it particularly funny is that Lionel Trilling is in fact a good critic, if to be a good critic means to have insights which often enlighten readers into what they feel and why they feel it during their reading.  He’s also a beautiful writer.  Tom’s not wholly wrong to enjoy his work; but that does not change the fact that some of Trillings opinions are, as Audrey says, strange.  And in this regard, Trilling could stand as a representative for a number of critical characters in the film.

Nick’s role—St. Nick? Old Nick? he shares characteristics with both, being the purveyor of jollity and temptation, most obviously for Tom—is especially central here.  Like Trilling and many another literary critics, he makes no bones about harshly critiquing what he can’t seem to tear himself away from; he is nearly always right but nearly always shocking; unlovable, but impossible to tear one’s ears away from; in an odd way, the center of the group of friends around which the movie circles—and yet, like many a critic, he seems to be responsible for creating an illusion of unity where none in fact may exist.

If I’m being cryptic, that’s because I don’t want to give spoilers.
Just go watch the movie, and then come back and tell me I’m right.

But Trilling and Nick are not the only critics in the film.  Stillman himself is his own character’s critic, alternately deflating their opinions and expectations, and (less often) showing their surprising moments of humanity (in the redeemable sense).  One glorious example of this is during the final twenty minutes of the movie—a twenty minutes which lived up to and in fact surpassed all my (admittedly low) hopes for the conclusion of the plot—

What can I say?  I’m a melancholic.
Expect the worst and you may be pleasantly surprised.

—when two characters find themselves on an unexpected mission.  Stillman’s preferred soundtrack, an upbeat jazzy business which has briefly given way before to more explicitly Christmassy tunes (including, briefly, a Bach Christmas chorale) changes abruptly to “With Catlike Tread” from The Pirates of Penzance.  I laughed so hard we had to stop the tape and have an explanation: at the particular point in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta when that song is sung, the Pirates are stalking “quietly” through the night (their jackboots pounding the stage boards with every percussive punctuation) to “rescue” some “damsels in distress.”  In Metropolitan’s new context (which I won’t spoil with more particulars here) the irony is doubled over: rich, delightful … but also humane.  Perhaps I am wrong about this, but I think in this film at least Stillman turns several pervasive ironies on their heads and leaves us—those of us who can understand—with a feeling that, despite the rocky, putrid waters in which we generally have to swim, there can be moments of light in the modern world.

That secret feeling of being “in the know” which so delights the intelligentsia?  I think I’m tasting its thrill as a conservative for the first time.  It might not be healthy for the superego to dip into such waters too frequently, but once in a blue moon it is a tonic: delicious, and restorative.  God bless Whit Stillman.

Should you see Metropolitan?  Well, I’ll point out it’s a nineties movie.  Expect a more-than-forties level of language, undress, topical reference, etc.  But if you can look past that, Metropolitan will be the best two hours you’ve wasted in recent memory.

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